Bluegrass Pickers Can Learn Clawhammer

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Bluegrass Pickers Can Learn Clawhammer
Bluegrass Pickers Can Learn Clawhammer
By Bob Flesher
It is amazing how many bluegrass
banjo pickers have told me, “I wish I could
play that clawhammer style but I just can’t
seem to make it work.” Many of them who
have said this have been professional banjo
players with big-name bands.
When I first took banjo lessons about
50 years ago, back in the days of white
toothpaste, my teacher, Bill Cunningham
of Ashville, NC, asked me if I wanted to
learn bluegrass or clawhammer. With a
dumb-struck look on my face, he said, “I’ll
teach you clawhammer first because it is
easier to learn. While you are practicing
that I will teach you bluegrass.” He already
knew it’s more difficult to transition from
clawhammer to bluegrass style, rather
than the other way around. Therein lies the
problem of bluegrass banjo pickers learning
clawhammer. It’s a harder transition but I’ll
show you how it can be easily accomplished
with time in practice.
Of course, in finger-picking, the fingers
pick up towards the palm of the hand. This
is the European style of playing a stringed
instrument. In clawhammer, the first or
second finger knocks down on the string
using the back of the fingernail. You can use
either your first or second finger as it makes
no difference. During the times of the
minstrels it was called the “Stroke Style”
because you “strike” the string, not pick it
Now that we’ve established the fingers
strike down on the string using the back of
the fingernail (note, you need a fingernail),
let’s see how the thumb works. Here’s the
first major problem for the bluegrass or
fingerpicker when learning clawhammer. In
finger picking, the thumb and fingers work
independently of each other and there are
multiple patterns in which the thumb does
its own thing. In clawhammer, the finger and
the thumb work as one, meaning the thumb
must submit to what the finger does. When
the finger goes down to strike the string, the
thumb goes down at the same time in the
same motion, hits the head and slides into
the 5th string like sliding into second base
as shown in Figure 1 above. Please notice
at this point that the thumb should naturally
exert just a little pressure on the fifth string.
You can see that in the figure 1.
As you try this technique you’ll notice
that when your finger knocks down on the
first string, your thumb will want to hold
back and pick the fifth string later when it
Figure 1
feels it is the right time, separately from the
finger. That is not the way it works. But, this
is what you’ve trained it to do when finger
picking. In clawhammer they both have to
work as a team—go down together in one
single action. Just practice this action only,
knocking down on the head with the back of
your finger nail, missing the string making a
thump on the head with your fingernail while
your thumb hits the head and slides into the
fifth string right below where the fifth string
crosses the tension hoop as shown in Figure
2. This should be one single action.
Figure 2
Don’t let the thumb make any sound
on the fifth string. Your hand should be
relaxed, not tense. After you have done
this routine 50 times or so then do the
same action while striking the first string.
Another 50 times then sound the fifth string.
This is done when you lift your finger up for
another strike. As the finger goes back up,
the thumb just falls off the fifth string with
the slight pressure it was holding. At this
point, while you are learning this lick, the
thumb does not pick the fifth string. It just
falls off the string making it sound. This is
because we are breaking the thumb of the
habit of doing anything but following the
finger. Later you will start to naturally pick
the fifth string. I suggest you practice these
threse techniques at least 50 times each day
for a week.
Now after playing bluegrass so long
your thumb is used to being independent
and will not submit to the finger and always
follow it. This is called an “Arrogant
Thumb” and it will eventually have to be
punished for insubordination, and made
humble and submissive to the finger. This
can be done by slamming it in a drawer
several times. In extreme cases you might
even have to slam your “Arrogant Thumb”
in the car door to get its attention. This is
usually very effective for making arrogant
thumbs humble.
Now, the second problem in learning
clawhammer is very simple. After you have
practiced these techniques for a while, it
becomes boring. Therefore, the second
problem is that you have a tendency to
put on your picks and rip off one of your
favorite bluegrass instrumentals and
you never get your clawhammer, thumb
humbling practice done—your thumb stays
independent, not submissive to the finger,
which results in wrong timing and not
being able to play. Then you go tell some
“clawhammer nerd”, “barely able to play”
and who has about one twentieth the banjo
knowledge you have that you just can’t
seem to get that clawhammer lick down. It
is certainly good for his ego to know you,
an accomplished bluegrass picker can’t do
what he can. Practice! Practice! Practice!
This will solve the second problem, which
in turn will solve the first problem.
I have made a video just for this
article on Youtube.com. Look up Bob
Flesher or “Bluegrass Pickers Learn
Clawhammer, Part 1” and learn the basics
of the clawhammer lick and what I have
just described above.
In addition, to this new technique we
must also mention hand and arm position.
Some clawhammer players insist on
keeping the arm and wrist stiff. I’m not
saying this is wrong, but it sure doesn’t
work for me. That means you are playing
with your arm instead of your hand. Fifty
years ago I sort of naturally learned to keep
my wrist arched up off the head and flex my
hand down still using the arm slightly when
I was going to strike the strings. Maybe I
was influenced by playing bluegrass where
I had to arch my wrist to pull my finger up
when picking the strings.
This flexible arched wrist has served
me well. First, my arm does not get tired
Figure 3
in a fast song, I have more control over my
fingers, my thumb is slightly more vertical
to the head allowing me to play with my
thumb nail instead of the side of my thumb
(which makes a more clean, distinct sound)
and lastly, it is much easier and even
essential when I drop my thumb down to
the lower strings. This is a lick called “drop
thumb” and will be taught next month in
Part 2 of this article. You will notice this
arch of the wrist in Figure 3. This can
also be demonstrated by going to Youtube,
searching for “Bob Flesher.” I have 5 or 6
videos which demonstrate this arched wrist,
drop thumb and the sound you can get.
Sometimes it is difficult to learn all this
and keep your wrist arched at the same time.
I suggest you get a small piece of sponge
about 1 1/2 inch tall and tape it temporarily
to your banjo head under where you wrist
is located. As you practice and your wrist
starts to sag toward the head, it will touch
the sponge and you remember to arch again.
I play with my wrist probably two inches off
the head. Some clawhammerists who play
with the stiff arm and wrist will probably
writhe in anguish at such a thought.
In the tab below I have included two
lines of exercise for your right hand. This
will help you establish the timing of your
hand. Notice that without the hammersons and pull-offs with your left hand your
right hand is doing the same thing throughout the whole exercise except for the last
four measures of the second line. Those
measures are unique to clawhammer style
including pulling off or hammering on open
strings that have not yet been struck.
In my next article, Part 2, I will describe
some details of clawhammer which will
make you an even more proficient player as
well as learning the Drop Thumb technique,
how Ralph Stanley plays, some unique licks,
different tunings unique to clawhammer,
fingernails and different clawhammer styles
including the “Round Peak” and pre-Civil
War Minstrel style, which is a very fancy
form of today’s clawhammer style. I’ll
have a video to go along with the article.
In the meantime, come by and visit my
Dr. Horsehair Music Co. website, www.
DrHorsehair.com for songs, CDs, Tabs,
and some interesting banjo history, stories
and tall tales. You even can learn how to
convert your pre-war Mastrertone, that will
peel bark off a tree, into a mellow, thumpy
clawhammer banjo. Since clawhammer
banjos are different from bluegrass banjos,
visit Bob Flesher’s Custom Banjos website,
wwwFlesherBanjos.com for some examples
of today’s open-back clawhammer and
Clawhammer exercises
minstrel banjos.
G Tuning, gGBDD. Arr. by Bob Flesher
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